Transmedia 202: Further Reflections

The above video was shot by Scott Walker during one of my presentations at San Diego Comic-Con, during which I spoke about some of the controversy which has surrounded the definition of transmedia over the past six months or so. I've largely stayed out of these conversations, though you can find a very good summary of the debates here.

I've been focusing on other projects and also I've been more interested in the shapes these discussions take than seeking to intervene in them directly, but over the summer, in a range of venues, I've been pushing and proding at my own definitions to see if I can capture some of my own shifting understandings of transmedia, especially as I am preparing to teach a revamped transmedia entertainment class at USC. Today, I am going to try to put some of this still evolving thinking into writing in hopes that it helps others sort through these issues.

Much of this is covered in the above video so if you process things better in audio-visual than in print, you have your options. I've heard some gossip that Jenkins was going to issue a "new definition" of "transmedia": this is no where near as dramatic an overhaul as that, just some clarifications and reflections about definitions. This definition still covers, more or less, what I mean by transmedia storytelling:

Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.

So, consider what follows Transmedia 202, to compliment my earlier Transmedia 101 post.

Given the sheer range of people who have embraced (latched onto?) transmedia, we should not be surprised that:

  1. different groups of people are defining a still emerging concept differently for different purposes for different audiences in different contexts
  2. some of those who talk about transmedia are less immersed in the previous writings and thinkings as we might wish and thus can bring a certain degree of fog
  3. some groups are strongly motivated to expand or blur the scope of the category for self promotional and self advancement purposes.

So, let's start at the top with convergence, which in Convergence Culture, I describe as a paradigm for thinking about the current moment of media change, one which is defined through the layering, diversification, and interconnectivity of media. Convergence contrasts with the Digital Revolution model which assumed old media would be displaced by new media. Aspects of this convergence model are shaping decisions of media producers, advertisers, technologists, consumers, and policy-makers, and thus convergence has many different aspects and consequences.

Transmedia, used by itself, simply means "across media." Transmedia, at this level, is one way of talking about convergence as a set of cultural practices. Keep in mind that Marsha Kinder in Playing with Power wrote about "transmedia intertextuality", while I was one of the first to popularize the term, transmedia storytelling. Transmedia storytelling describes one logic for thinking about the flow of content across media. We might also think about transmedia branding, transmedia performance, transmedia ritual, transmedia play, transmedia activism, and transmedia spectacle, as other logics. The same text might fit within multiple logics. So, for example, we could imagine Glee as a transmedia narrative in which we follow the characters and situations across media, but more often, Glee's transmedia strategies emphasize transmedia performance, with the songs moving through YouTube, iTunes, live performances, etc., which we read against each other to make sense of the larger Glee phenomenon.

So, there are some people who think that transmedia is simply a form of branding: I would rather argue that branding is one thing you can do with transmedia, but when I speak about transmedia storytelling, that is not the central focus of my interest. I am focusing on emergent forms of storytelling which tap into the flow of content across media and the networking of fan response.

Some people have argued that transmedia is simply another name for franchising. Franchising is a corporate structure for media production which has a long history and throughout much of that history, there has been an attempt to move icons and brands across media channels, but not necessarily an attempt to extend the story in ways which expanded its scope and meaning. Most previous media franchises were based on reproduction and redundancy, but transmedia represents a structure based on the further development of the storyworld through each new medium. For a good guide to the history and practices of franchising, watch for the forthcoming book by Derek Johnson, who has been doing extensive thinking on this topic.

Much of franchising has been based on licensing arrangements which make it hard for media producers to add or change anything beyond what is already in the primary text or the mother ship. True transmedia storytelling is apt to emerge through structures which encourage co-creation and collaboration, but as Johnson notes, the more a media producer moves in this direction, the greater the challenges of coordination and consistency become.

I have sometimes talked about a distinction between adaptation and extension as fundamental to understanding these shifts. Basically, an adaptation takes the same story from one medium and retells it in another. An extension seeks to add something to the existing story as it moves from one medium to another. Christy Dena has challenged making such a cut-and-dried distinction. Adaptations may be highly literal or deeply transformative. Any adaptation represents an interpretation of the work in question and not simply a reproduction, so all adaptions to some degree add to the range of meanings attached to a story. And as Dena notes, the shifts between media mean that we have new experiences and learn new things. To translate Harry Potter from a book to a movie series means thinking through much more deeply what Hogwarts looks like and thus the art director/production designer has significantly expanded and extended the story in the process. It might be better to think of adaptation and extension as part of a continuum in which both poles are only theoretical possibilities and most of the action takes place somewhere in the middle.

What the adaptation-extension distinction was intended to address was additive comprehension, a term borrowed from game designer Neil Young, to refer to the degree that each new text adds to our understanding of the story as a whole. So, the Falling Skies graphic novel is a prequel which tells us about the disappearance of the middle brother and thus helps to provide insights into the motives of the characters on the Turner television series. In this case, additive comprehension takes the form of back story, but the same graphic novel also helps us to better understand the organization of the resistance movement, which we can see as part of a world-building process. Most transmedia content serves one or more of the following functions:

  • Offers backstory
  • Maps the World
  • Offers us other character's perspectives on the action
  • Deepens audience engagement.

I have been troubled by writers who want to reduce transmedia to the idea of multiple media platforms without digging more deeply into the logical relations between those media extensions. So, if you are a guild, it matters deeply that you have a definition which determines how many media are deployed, but for me, as a scholar, that is not the key issue that concerns me. As we think about defining transmedia, then, we need to come back to the relations between media and not simply count the number of the media platforms. So, again, let's imagine a continuum of possibilities.

We might start with the notion of seriality. Seriality would imply the unfolding of a story over time, typically through a process of chunking (creating meaningful bits of the story) and dispersal (breaking the story into interconnected installments). Central to this process is the creation of a story hook or cliffhanger which motivates the consumer to come back for more of the same story. Historically, seriality occurs within the same text.

So, we've seen American television evolve over time between highly episodic structures (more or less self-contained) to much more heavily serialized structures. Most shows, though, combine elements of the episodic (a procedural plot which can be wrapped up in a single episode) and the serial (an evolving character relationship, an unfolding mythology, a larger plot within which the individual episodes work as chapters.) The shift towards seriality on American television plays a large role in preparing audiences for transmedia storytelling. Most transmedia stories are highly serial in structure, but not all serials are transmedia. So, Bones, say, is a partially serialized drama which, for the most part, remains within a single medium.

But we can think of examples where there is a movement across texts or across textual structures within the same medium. I describe this in terms of "radical intertextuality." So, for example, the DC and Marvel universes create dozens of titles which are seen as inter-related. Characters move between them. Plots unfold across them. Periodically, they may have events which straddle multiple book titles, and part of the pleasure of something like Marvel Civil Wars is that we see the same event from the point of view of multiple characters, who may have conflicting perspectives on what is happening. Similarly, Battlestar Galactica unfolds across multiple television series, mini-series, and stand-alone movies. If Battlestar remained in a single medium, television, then it would be another example of radical intertextuality. But, because Battlestar extends this process to include webisodes and comics, which are understood as part of the same continuity, then we call it a transmedia story.

So, let's call this next level Multimodality -- a term coined by Gunther Kress to talk about how educational design taps the affordances of different instructional media, but applied by Christy Dena to talk about transmedia narrative. The key point here is that different media involve different kinds of representation -- so what Green Lantern looks like differs from a comic book, a live action movie, a game, or an animated television series. Each medium has different kinds of affordances -- the game facilitates different ways of interacting with the content than a book or a feature film. A story that plays out across different media adopts different modalities. A franchise can be multimodal without being transmedia -- most of those which repeat the same basic story elements in every media fall into this category. For me, a work needs to combine radical intertextuality and multimodality for the purposes of additive comprehension to be a transmedia story. That's why shortening transmedia to "a story across multiple media" distorts the discussion.

So far, nothing here implies that particular media need to be involved for something to become transmedia. One can construct a high end transmedia system (a major blockbuster movie or network television show and its extensions) and one can construct a low end transmedia system (a low budget and/or independent film, a comic book or web series as the spring board for something which might include live performance or oral storytelling...) Some have tried to argue that games are a key component of transmedia, but I do not want to prioritize digital media extensions over other kinds of media practices.

For this reason, it is possible to find historical antecedents for transmedia which predate the rise of networked computing and interactive entertainment. I am not preoccupied with the "newness" of transmedia. The current push for transmedia has emerged from shifts in production practices (shaped by media concentration, in some cases) or reception practices (the emergence of Web 2.0 and social media), but it has also come from the emergence of new aesthetic understandings of how popular texts work (shaped in part by the rise of geeks and fans to positions of power within the entertainment industries).

The options available to a transmedia producer today are different from those available some decades ago, but we can still point to historical antecedents which were experimenting with notions of world building and mythology-modeled story structures in ways that include both radical intertextuality and multimodality. In that way, you can say that L. Frank Baum (in his focus on world building across media), Walt Disney (in his focus on transmedia branding) and J.R.R. Tolkien (with his experiments in radical intertextuality) each prefigure transmedia practices.

Similarly, I've argued that Obama is as much a transmedia character as Obi Wan is. I do not mean by this simply that our everyday lives are conducted across multiple media platforms, though this is true. I also mean that we tend to connect those dispersed pieces of information together to form a story, that the story we construct depends on which media extensions we draw upon (Fox News vs. The Huffingston Post), and that there are architects who seek to coordinate and construct the range of meanings which get attached to that story. In that sense, the Obama story, as constructed by his campaign, includes both radical intertextuality and multimodality.

When I wrote Convergence Culture, I focused the transmedia discussion around The Matrix, while including a side bar which discussed The Beast as an Alternate Reality Game. I understood that ARGs had something to do with transmedia, but my use of the sidebar structure allowed me to dodge the tougher question of whether ARGs are transmedia, and that's where some of the most heated debates in recent years has occurred.

The Hollywood based model of transmedia assumes a story told or a world explored across not simply multiple media but multiple texts, which can be sold to audiences separately and which represent multiple touch points with the brand. (Note, for my definition, it really doesn't matter if the texts form a single narrative or multiple stories set in the same world, since in practice, most transmedia includes multiple plot lines which can be dispersed in different ways across the installments.) The ARG model, however, assumes that multiple media can contribute to a single entertainment experience. So, we are more likely to talk about The Beast, I Love Bees, or The Lost Experience as completed texts in their own right (as well as in all three cases as part of larger entertainment franchises). Different groups have different stakes in drawing lines distinguishing or integrating these two models. It is important to understand what they are each trying to accomplish, but I am less invested in defining in or out one model or the other. I just think this is a space which deserves closer conceptual work than it has received so far. Both could meet my emphasis on radical intertextuality and multimodality and both can deliver on the promises of additive comprehension.

Another debate worth monitoring here has to do with issues of audience participation in the development of a transmedia property. These debates break down into two sets of issues. The first has to do with the differences I draw in Convergence Culture between interactivity and participation. For me, interactivity has to do with the properties of the technology and participation has to do with the properties of the culture. Obviously, in practice, both may come into play in the same text. So, for example, a computer game stresses interactivity and thus preprogramed entertainment experiences. Fan culture is high on participation, where fans take the resources offered by a text and push it in a range of directions which are neither preprogrammed nor authorized by the producers.

When people claim that interactivity is a core element of a transmedia experience, I want to make sure we are using the term in the same way. We can imagine a range of different relations which fans might have to a transmedia property. On one end would be the hunting and gathering practices of finding the dispersed pieces of information and figuring out how they all fit together to form a meaningful whole. On the other end, we might have playing through a level of a game, working past obstacles, killing bosses, and gathering objects. But we might also think about various forms of fan performance -- from fan fiction to cosplay -- which are more participatory and open ended and less dependent on the design choices of the transmedia producers.

A second set of issues has to do with continuity vs. multiplicity. Most discussions of transmedia place a high emphasis on continuity -- assuming that transmedia requires a high level of coordination and creative control and that all of the pieces have to cohere into a consistent narrative or world. This is a practice which is hard enough to achieve across the multiple divisions of the same production team and it becomes hard for fans to contribute directly to the development of a narrative which places high emphasis on continuity. Indeed, many projects which claim to tap "user-generated content" do so in ways which protect the "integrity" of the continuity at the expense of enabling multiple perspectives and more open-ended participation. They make the author or some designated agent an arbiter of what counts within the canon. On the other hand, there are forms of commercially produced transmedia which really celebrate the multiplicity which emerges from seeing the same characters and stories told in radically different ways. This focus on multiplicity leaves open a space for us to see fan-produced media as part of a larger transmedia process, even if we then want to try to sort through how different elements get marked as official canon or fan alternatives.

Sorry this has gotten so complicated, but I think part of the problem is that many people are looking for simple formulas and a one-size-fits-all definition, trying to delimit what transmedia is. But, we are still in a period of experimentation and innovation. New models are emerging through production practices and critical debates, and we need to be open to a broad array of variations of what transmedia means in relation to different projects. I wrote in Convergence Culture that convergence practices, for the foreseeable future, will amount to "kludges," jerry-rigged attempts to connect different media together, as we all figure out what's going on and what works well.

There is no transmedia formula. Transmedia refers to a set of choices made about the best approach to tell a particular story to a particular audience in a particular context depending on the particular resources available to particular producers. The more we expand the definition, the richer the range of options available to us can be. It doesn't mean we expand transmedia to the point that anything and everything counts, but it means we need a definition sophisticated enough to deal with a range of very different examples. What I want to exclude from this definition is "business as usual" projects which are not exploring the expanded potential of transmedia, but are simply slapping a transmedia label on the same old franchising practices we've seen for decades.

As a way to promote more conversation, please send me your questions, critiques, and other responses to, and I will try to respond in a future post.